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Niloofar Rahmani (Persian: نیلوفر رحمانی), born in Afghanistan in 1992, is the first female fixed-wing Air Force aviator in Afghanistan's history and the first female pilot in the Afghan military since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
Though her family received death threats, she persevered to complete her training and won the U.S. State Department's International Women of Courage Award in 2015.
2nd Lt. Niloofar Rahmani stood alongside the other four graduates of undergraduate pilot training just prior to receiving their pilot wings at a ceremony on the 14th of May 2013 at Shindand Air Base in Afghanistan.
Since she was a child, she had always dreamed of becoming a pilot and spent nearly a year studying English to be able to attend flight school. She enlisted in the Afghan Air Force Officer Training Program in 2010 and in July 2012 graduated as a Second Lieutenant.
Two female helicopter pilots during the Soviet era, along with her father, were the inspiration for Rahmani's achievement. Her first solo flight was in a Cessna 182, but wanting to fly larger aircraft, she went to advanced flight school and was soon flying the C-208 military cargo transport aircraft.
Women are traditionally banned from transporting dead or wounded soldiers; however, Rahmani defied orders when she discovered injured soldiers upon landing in one mission. Flying them to a hospital, she reported her actions to her superiors, but they imposed no sanctions.
When her achievements were publicized, Captain Rahmani's family received threats from both family members and the Taliban, who disapproved of her ambition and career choices.
The family has had to move several times but Rahmani is resolute and aims to fly a larger C-130 plane and become a flight instructor to inspire other women.
She began training on C-130s with the US Air Force in 2015 and completed the program in December 2016. After graduating she applied for asylum in the United States.
Rahmani was only 18 years old when she heard an announcement in the media about the recruitment of young women into the Afghan Air Force, including the opportunity for pilot training.
Soon after, she enlisted in officer training and graduated as a Second Lieutenant. In July 2012 – just two years after hearing the recruitment announcement – Rahmani graduated from flight school and completed her first solo flight in September in a Cessna 182, an American four-seat, single-engine light airplane.
She continued to expand her skills and challenge all odds when she graduated from advanced flight training and became qualified to fly a C-208 military cargo aircraft.
In spite of death threats, 2nd Lt. Rahmani remains determined to continue her career in the Afghan Air Force and work as frequently as her security situation permits. She is also deeply committed to encouraging other young women to join the cadre of female AAF pilots.
The 21-year-old 2nd Lieutenant Nilofar Rahmani was graduated during a ceremony at Shindand Air Base in western Herat province of Afghanistan, along with other eight young Afghan pilots.
The young Afghan pilots have been trained by U.S. Air Force instructors and were graduated after completing 197 sorties consisting of 145.5 flying hours, the graduates firt trained on the Cessna 182 fixed-wing aircraft or the MD 530 rotary aircraft.
2nd Lt. Rahmani, quoted by Washington Times said: "First, it was my ambition, and second, I want to show that Afghanistan can have female pilots. It's a job females can do also, it's not a hard job that the men can just do. Both can do it."
She also added: "I wanted to fly with my brothers, shoulder to shoulder."
"It’s my honor to serve my country and be the first female, and being an example for other females behind me."
Rahmani visited the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, and flew in a Blue Angel's jet at Naval Air Facility El Centro, California on March 11th.
Rahmani flew her orientation flight in the back seat of a Blue Angels F/A-18 Hornet with Narrator and VIP pilot, Blue Angel #7, Marine Captain Jeff Kuss.
"This was a wonderful opportunity to share the pride and professionalism of the United States Navy and Marine Corps with a representative of another nation," said Blue Angels Commanding Officer and Flight Leader Captain Tom Frosch.
"It also provided the opportunity for our squadron to ask questions and learn more about Afghanistan's Air Force."
"When I heard I was going to fly with the Blue Angels, I was so excited" Rahmani said. "That was the first time that I felt G-forces while flying."
Rahmani's road to success has been very challenging and dangerous.
"It was not easy finishing flight school, it was very hard, but someone had to accept the risk so that other women can do what they dream," Rahmani explained.
"You can't just see yourself as a woman, but as a human and believe in yourself," Rahmani said.
First Lady Michelle Obama recently honored Rahmani's bravery, commitment, and empowerment of women and girls in Afghanistan. Rahmani and nine other women were awarded the Secretary of State's International Women of Courage Award for 2015 at an award ceremony.
"We had to keep this secret; my family should not know that I am in the military," she told the MCAS Miramar Marines.
As Rahmani met with the Marine leadership, the captain talked about her training with U.S. military instructors in Afghanistan. She said they treated her the same as the male pilots and told her to never give up.
Hearing her stories, Maj. Gen. Michael Rocco, the commanding general of Third Marine Aircraft Wing, told Rahmani, "Not only do you feel the pressure of being the first, but you also feel the pressure of the responsibility that comes with being the first."
She shared the extreme pressure she is under with female pilots from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. Rahmani said she has been subjected to multiple death threats from members of the Afghan military, people in her own country, the Taliban and eventually her extended family.
Her sister she said was beaten and is forbidden from seeing her own daughter. Her brother had to hide from gunfire while walking home from class one day. Her family has to move every couple of months to stay safe.
While serving in the military is something to be proud of, for Rahmani, there is a huge price to pay: "Being a female in the military is a shame for all the family" she said.
Major Natalie Walker, a female Marine pilot who is trained to fly the F-18, had this reaction to Rahmani’s story:
"I can't imagine having to deal with the adversity that she's had to face, not only from her government, but from her own family."
But no matter the challenge, Rahmani stays strong, she said, for the women who will follow in her footsteps and change the path for women in Afghanistan.
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